Sankara Saranam's God without Religion: Questioning Centuries of Accepted Truths is a brave and brilliant attempt to answer a question that thinking men all over the world have been desperately asking for quite some time now: Is it possible to attain God without religion? Are there paths that lead to God that do not require one to accept the dogmas of established, organized religions? Can one say goodbye to the so-called great vehicles and royal paths and yet reach the goals they profess to take you to? For, religions today, particularly organized religions, have mostly become lost either in the quagmire of blind faith or in the desert sands of meaningless rituals. Inspiringly intelligent and fearlessly iconoclastic, God without Religion, while accepting what is noble and still meaningful in different religions, outright rejects what has become irrelevant in them, what never had anything to do with spirituality but was more results of the attempts by its founders and early teachers to answer the very worldly needs and compunctions of their immediate society.
'Religion never satisfied me, and often infuriated me,' says the author beginning the preface to the book. Impelled by this dissatisfaction with established religions and furious at their demand that man surrender his initiative and reason totally in order to follow them, feelings that many of us share today, Sankara Saranam questions the very foundations of their impressive edifices through an uncompromising historical analysis of their central teachings and myths. Such was the vehemence of his disappointment with religions that he spent years studying established religions, on the way acquiring master's degrees in Religion, Philosophy, Hebrew and Sanskrit in order to empower himself to study these religions authentically from their original sources. And in the process, says Sankara Saranam in a statement that clearly reflects the agony of his disenchantment with established religions, in a statement the bluntness of which should disturb every thinking man, he 'learnt that religions were never intended to support the search for an expansive God and are actually antithetical to it.'
'Religious scriptures of all persuasions have imperiled humanity's freedom of thought and pursuit of liberty,' says Saranam. His anger is also because he sees established religions as divisive forces ' dividing people into 'us' and into 'them' ' the 'us' being against 'them' and always superior to 'them.'
So rather than feeling humble in the presence of God, the ultimate source of all, followers of each religion feel superior to followers of all other religions, each group feeling they are the chosen ones, some religions requiring of its followers not only to abide by their faiths and practices, but also to convert others into their folds, failing which, some of them going to the extent of offering heaven as a reward for reducing the number of the others, if necessary with the sharp edges of swords. It is not tolerance that is taught, but intolerance; it is not co-existence that is taught, but dominance and where necessary, decimation. Lighting the fires of fear and hatred becomes acceptable because it is done in the name of holiness.
'Humanity is still suffering from the fanaticism of individuals influenced by canonized books espousing erroneous ideas, theologies based on superstition, unscientific cosmologies, false expectations and unethical commands,' says Sankara Saranam.
Urging us to reject such theologies and canonical books and to seek our God ourselves, the author points out discrepancies and glaring contradictions in religious scriptures, thus telling us how they couldn't be trusted. He draws our attention to the tendency of authors of scriptures to propagandistically cater to the moods and expectations of people rather than being faithful to the truth. Thus, speaking of the Bible, for instance, Saranam points out that the 'narrative about Jesus recorded between the middle of the first century and the fourth century in the Gospel of Matthew seems actually to have been written for enactment. Like the Greek dramas, it is rich with improbabilities; compresses events into a narrow time-frame to fit a series of scenes, a structure that allows for only minimal detail, and contains numerous incongruities,' a few of which he proceeds to discuss in some detail.
'A truth seeker will find inconsistencies in the Gospel of Matthew that suggest the image of God it portrays is based partially on expectations of the people living at the time,' says Saranam. He then proceeds to explain this with several examples, one of which is: 'Matthew shows in Jesus's genealogy that his father, Joseph, was descended from David ' a lineage conforming with the Hebrew understanding that the coming Messiah would be a descendant of King David of ancient Israel. Elsewhere he states that Mary was impregnated by the Holy Spirit. Thus, instead of choosing between Jesus being the scion of David and the Son of God, Matthew incorporates both ideas, despite their incongruity. This contradiction, among others, gives the impression that Matthew's depiction of the life of Jesus was influenced by Hebrew expectations.'
He accuses Matthew of 'subverting' the Hebrew Bible by stating that Jesus had a virgin birth and points out that 'Mark and John, who were writing with different agendas'do not account for the virgin birth at all.'
Writing about scriptures of other religions like Judaism, Islam and Hinduism, Sankara Saranam draws our attention to similar incongruities in the stories they tell us and in the impossibility of surrendering blindly to any of these religions so long as we are rational.
Saranam's dissatisfaction is with the limiting and binding tendencies of religions, when they should instead be liberating and expanding. While criticizing religions, he in no way rejects the validity of the images of Krishna, the Buddha, Jesus, Allah and other Gods and God-figures, for he says, each has the potential to invoke devotion and through it direct our energies and awareness inward, thus leading us to God.
God without Religion, though, does more than question centuries of accepted truths. While denying established religions the authenticity and competence to lead us to God, Saranam strongly recommends to us for practice several methods once used by religion in its healthy days but have subsequently been given up.
Asceticism, for instance ' that is, asceticism in its moderate, healthy form. Intuition, for another. The journey towards self-knowledge, says the author, should begin by rejecting biases and refusing to accept anything on mere authority. From there we can move to intuition, something very different from the means science uses to acquire knowledge of the world ' the senses, feelings and intellect, none of which can penetrate into the world of the self. 'The more we learn about the self from within instead of relying on superficial intellectual explanations or religious dogma, the closer humanity will come to an expansive knowledge that illuminates both the forms and forces of the cosmos and the subtle substance of the self.' There are other aids that Saranam recommends ' some of them as old as the first spiritual being on earth, some contemporary to us in origin.
Saranam who rejects age-old religions is not fascinated by New Age religions either, which he finds painfully inadequate to meet the genuine spiritual needs of contemporary man.
Sankara Saranam's spirituality does not stand with its back to the world or with its eyes closed to social, political and economic concerns of man. Instead, throughout the book, at each step, we see the author's deep concern for the world. And perhaps it is this that makes the author dissatisfied with organized religions more than his perception that they stand in the way of the individual reaching the goals they preach about. This might also explain why he felt the need to include a full chapter on terrorism in the name of God which has been holding the entire humanity to ransom for quite some while now.
The book is divided into four chapters ' sections would perhaps have been a more appropriate name ' viz., Worshipping and Wondering, A Bigger Picture of Human Progress, An Alternative to Organized Religion, and Testing Today's Choices, in addition to which there is a conversation with the author appended to it. Each of these chapters or sections has, apart from discussions of a variety of topics, very practical spiritual exercises included in it. The exercises, called techniques by the author, include such general ones as working in a colloquium to highly focused ones meant to develop intuition, the central means of knowing the self, and form 'energy seals'. In all, seventeen such exercises are included in the book.
The book concludes with a beautiful poem by Rumi, the celebrated Sufi mystic. His words:
'I am not from the East or the West,
not out of the ocean or up from the ground,
not natural or ethereal,
not composed of elements at all,' etc.
reminded me of another rebel against the corruption and meaninglessness of religion as it was practiced in his days, the great Adi Shankara, who sang ecstatically
'I am not the mind,
nor am I the intellect,
the ego or chitta,
I am not the senses
nor the five elements:
I am but pure consciousness,
Shiva am I,
the ever auspiciousness one,
Shiva am I,
the ever auspiciousness one.'
While all religions become corrupt in the course of time, there have always been men who grew greater than their religions, broke the bonds imposed by their religions and walked straight into the world of God.
In spite of what Sankara Saranam says, I found his book is not about rejecting religion, but about asserting it, rediscovering it, raising it to its pristine glory. It is also emblematic of the triumph of man, of man's capacity to renew himself and his institutions, to find his own level, water-like, in the world. Reading a book like this restores our faith in humanity, in the flames of innate wisdom in its heart that refuse to die.
One last thing. Sankara Saranam is a Jew by birth, born to Iraqi parents who had to flee their homeland because of religious persecution. Growing up in the United States, he studied aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan and classical guitar at the Manhattan School of Music. Subsequently he became a student the Self-realization fellowship founded by Paramahamsa Yogananda and was initiated into advanced techniques of pranayama and Kriya Yoga.